Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

This review was first published on The Spinoff on 5 December 2016.

It creeps up on you, this novel. It opens in 1964, at a christening party in suburban Los Angeles. Bert Cousins shows up uninvited with a big bottle of gin. The backyard is full of citrus trees groaning with oranges – the mixer. Everyone gets rather loose, and Bert unwisely kisses the hostess, Beverly Keating. It’s an evocative opening, but I was suspicious. It felt like I was being fed the stuff of legends – that party! That gin! Was I really reading one of those “it all started that fateful day” stories? I thought Ann Patchett would be more… subtle.

We skip ahead. Franny Keating is taking her father (known as Fix) to chemotherapy, and he’s telling her about the day Bert Cousins stole his wife at Franny’s christening party. Franny responds by talking fondly of her stepfather Bert. Okay, so that kiss was the start of something. But as soon as we learn this, we learn that Bert and Beverly’s marriage didn’t last either. Maybe this book isn’t actually about that.

We skip back again, to the summers the Keating and Cousins children spent together in Virginia, where Bert and Beverly moved after their marriage. United in their dislike for the parents, and left to their own devices, the six kids make their own fun, drinking gin (yes, gin again), stealing Bert’s gun from the glovebox, and drugging the youngest Cousins child, Albie, with Benadryl to get him off their case. What could possibly go wrong?

Forward again, to 1988. “The endless unsupervised summers of the commonwealth were over.” Franny is working as a waitress at a cocktail bar when she meets Leon Posen. Famous author Leon Posen – a sort of Roth/Updike figure. He’s much older than her and very drunk. He also hasn’t written anything of note for ages. But he’s Leon Posen! She can’t say no to him. She tells him a story from her childhood, about a blended family, a gun, a drugged kid sleeping in a pile of laundry. He turns it into a best-selling novel called Commonwealth.

Forward again. Albie, now an adult and a recovering heroin addict, is given a copy of Commonwealth by the receptionist at a publishing firm he delivers to as a cycle courier. The penny drops. Suddenly I see what Patchett is doing and it’s so… subtle.

“In truth,” as the narrator remarks in a later chapter, “the story didn’t turn out to be such a bad one.” In truth, it’s rather masterful.

It’s not entirely fictional. Patchett  grew up in a blended family that threw two sets of kids together every summer, and has called this book her “autobiographical first novel,” even though it’s her seventh. In 2004, she published a memoir about the death of her friend Lucy Grealy that saw her accused of being a “grief thief” by Lucy’s family. The particular combination of guilt and elation at the success of a book based on the misery of others is one she knows well, and puts into Franny’s words: “Franny had her share of guilt and dread when Commonwealth was published, but still, she would never deny that those were glorious days.”

Patchett writes around the significant events. We think we’re getting them – the christening party, the day the kids take the gun, the night Franny meets Leon Posen – but we’re not. We don’t look directly at the divorce, what happens to the kids, or the moment Franny tells Posen her story. We just see the scenes that precede and follow them, the effect of the ripples across time and on multiple characters.

Life’s like that – moments that seem charged with significance turn out to mean nothing, while it’s not until years later that you realise how some seemingly small decision has changed the course of your life.

A whole good day: When parenting finally feels like you thought it would

This essay was originally published on The Spinoff on 29 November 2016.

On the day my daughter turned three, a man gave me a chopping board. It was a lovely chopping board, made from caramel-coloured blocks of recycled rimu that had been glued together and clamped in a vice. The man had made it himself. He brought it over to my house in the afternoon, along with a miniature Pinky bar for my daughter, Esther.

I met this man about five years ago, when I was first running for Parliament. He was the chair of the local peace group, and hosted a debate for the candidates. Later he became a dedicated campaign volunteer. He was kind and generous, and donated several of his chopping boards to fundraising auctions. After I left Parliament, earlier than I had planned, he asked if he could gift me one as a token of support and appreciation. It took me almost three years to follow up and accept his offer.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want it, though we did have three other chopping boards already. Two were wedding presents, building blocks of our joint kitchen. One was a birthday gift from my stepfather about two years ago. That one was made from a slice of fallen pohutukawa tree blown over in the wind on Great Barrier Island. We used to be good at taking care of them, oiling them regularly along with our cast iron pans, but slowly we fell out of the habit. After Esther was born and I left Parliament, things were hard. I was having trouble with anxiety, and my partner was suffering from chronic pain. Maintaining our possessions, and even making a time to receive a gift from a kind supporter, were low on the list of priorities.

We took the same approach to most of our responsibilities apart from keeping ourselves and Esther clean, fed, and showing up in the places we needed to be. That was enough – often it felt like too much. Our front fence, which is a retaining wall, is sagging and cracking. Each time there’s an earthquake in Wellington, it cracks a little more. In the big one the other day, a cinder block fell clean out.

There is a 1976 Mini Austin Clubman slowly rusting in a neighbour’s garage across the road. We bought it in the summer after I was elected to Parliament, with visions of me becoming ‘that MP lady with the little green car’. We drove it back from Kaiapoi while I memorised my maiden speech in the passenger seat. We meant to sell it three years ago, but we can’t seem to do it. Every three months we renew the registration, resigned.

Our house is called the Herb Cottage. The woman who lived there before us was a herbalist who operated a massage studio out the back. It smelled of lavender and calendula when we moved in. We knew she wanted someone to buy it who would take care of her herbs, so we wrote her a letter to that effect to accompany our offer. She accepted. Three years later, the garden runs wild. Fennel taller than us chokes the apple tree, nasturtiums spread across the lawn from every planter bed, and the garden seat her husband built has rotted and collapsed.

Inside the house, paper and books are piled on every surface. Esther’s odd socks are sprinkled through the house like seasoning. The cat luxuriates in piles of clean, unfolded washing. Sometimes I feel like we exist on the surface of our life. We get through each day, run the dishwasher, eat, and collapse into bed to do it all again. Dealing with longer-term projects seems impossible, overwhelming. So, we don’t. Most of the time I no longer feel guilty about this, recognising that survival is our primary aim. Most of the time I’m okay with that. But it’s hard.

The other day was a good day. A whole good day, from start to finish. All three of us woke refreshed. Dave cooked us a breakfast of mushrooms on toast. The sun was shining. We took a family outing to the new playground at Avalon Park. Dave slept in the warm sun while Esther and I explored. She was in her element, brave, adventurous, independent. We stayed for two and a half hours. I wish I could live here, she said to me as we left – but she left without complaint. We went to a café for lunch. She was dehydrated and hungry after her morning of playing in the sun, but she lasted. We came home. She didn’t fall asleep on the way. We watched a movie – Inside Out – to get through the post-lunch lull. She didn’t fall asleep then either. I painted her nails. She didn’t really get the movie, but she watched it anyway. “When I’m five I will know how to watch it,” she said. I cried, especially at the bit when Joy realises that she needs Sadness with her. That you can’t have one without the other.

Then Esther helped me make dinner. She had her own pan and little bits of each thing I was cooking, and she stirred and chatted away. The meal was ready early, and she ate it. Every last bit. Then she had a bath, read a story with Dave, a story with me. I turned out the light, sang her Pokarekare Ana, and she was out.

It was a day just like I thought every day as a parent would be but which so few of them are. A day in which Dave and I were both present, and relaxed. A day in which Esther had fun, and all her needs were met. In which we rested, ate well, and took care of each other.

After dinner I drank a glass of wine and oiled the chopping boards, all four of them. They came up just fine.

Dear Mamas Episode 6 transcript: ECE

In February 2016, Emily Writes and I started a parenting podcast called Dear Mamas. Our manifesto is no bullshit, no judgement, and we hope to build friendship, support and community. As of this episode, we are very excited to be part of The Spinoff family of podcasts, and we have a sponsor – Little Big Crate, delivering gorgeous threads for your little big person, right to your front door. You can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or Stitcher, or listen on The Spinoff Parents. I’ll be posting transcripts of each episode here for anyone who’s unable to listen. Huge thanks to @missashlynm for this transcript.

In this episode we explore the myriad of bewildering ECE options available for our children. Between us, we’ve just about tried them all, and we share our experiences good and bad. We’re joined by an experienced ECE teacher, Jo, who also shares her own experiences and answers all our questions and sets us at ease about our insecurities.

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The Mervyn Thompson Affair: What a 32 year old controversy can tell us about the Chiefs scandal

First published on The Spinoff on 15 September 2016, part of its week-long coverage of the Mervyn Thompson Affair – the strange, powerful 1984 incident when six women abducted an Auckland university lecturer, chained him to a tree in Western Springs, and labelled him a rapist.

I think the six women who abducted Mervyn Thompson had a grand plan. As well as enacting vigilante justice on him for his alleged crime, I think they hoped to shock the country out of complacency about rape and sexism, and force a culture change. In light of a police and court system that responded inadequately to victims of sexual violence, and deeply ingrained sexism in New Zealand society, perhaps they convinced themselves that violence was the only rational response.

Thompson became a symbol, chosen because of his high-profile and respected status as a playwright and lecturer, to stand in for all men – or at least all rapists. It was a brutal invitation to see things from a victim’s perspective: men, imagine if this happened to you. It’s how many women feel, all the time.

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Dear Mamas Episode 5 transcript: Are we done having kids?

In February 2016, Emily Writes and I started a parenting podcast called Dear Mamas. Our manifesto is no bullshit, no judgement, and we hope to build friendship, support and community. You can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or Stitcher, or listen on Emily’s blog. I’ll be posting transcripts of each episode here for anyone who’s unable to listen.

In this episode we explore how to know when you’ve had your last child. Holly is agonising over whether to have a second, Emily is pretty sure she’s done at two, but you never know… so we ask our friend Andrea (@MsBeeton) who has twelve (yes twelve!) children, why she kept having kids and how she knew she was finally done.

In the process, she breaks every stereotype we thought we had about people with large families, graciously endures our wide-eyed questioning, and we hold hands and agree it’s different for everyone and we’re all doing just fine. Huge and heartfelt thanks to @mamamuriel for the epic transcript.

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Review: The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

This review first appeared on The Spinoff on 4 August 2016.

There’s something inevitable, natural even, about the way victims of sexual abuse can end up being blamed for what’s happened to them. Sometimes it’s so overt and egregious that we’ll all be outraged – like the Canadian judge who in 2014 asked an alleged rape victim why she couldn’t just keep her knees shut – but the rest of the time, it can feel normal, embedded in the very language, “the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things. As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.” This idea, and Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s rage about it, is the fuel for her fifth novel, The Natural Way of Things, which won Australia’s big new prize for women writers, the Stella Prize, earlier this year.

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